Just a story set in 1951, the start of the “Fabulous 50s,” after World War II and its aftermath.
We were deeply involved in the “Cold War” against our former most important ally, “Russia,” the Soviet Union, separated now from the great alliance, behind the “Iron Curtain.” (I use these quotation marks to call attention to the antiquity of the terms and titles.)
In 1951, I left the very familiar landmarks and blocks of my town and the shorelines and riverbanks beyond its borders and boundaries – my friends and I had hiked all its streets and watched the Quonset hut village at the corner of Elmgrove and Sessions go up and come down. It was time for me to leave my habitual routes and routines and head for the Yale campus, and New Haven and its shores and hills outside the moats.
At that time, there existed a now mostly forgotten gesture of the admissions committee, the furthest thing from the current philosophy seeking diversity! Instead, they were searching for brainy boys who could design bombs to scare off the Communists, the reds, the radicals. And so they created a special fund to welcome very young genius lads, ages 14 or 15, under the title Ford Fellowships.
Most of these gifted youngsters, A+ types competitive in classrooms, burned out and never did earn a B.A., but that is another story. This tale is my own version of the life, career and death of one of these brilliant classmates, who lived just above my chambers in Wright Hall.
Wright Hall was the classiest dormitory on the Old Campus, with twin lions guarding the patio and entrances. The powers that ruled were pretty conservative sorts, and, although there was one token person of color, they gave him a small one-room single chamber in the attic – so as not to scare the freshmen from nobler backgrounds.
Next door to this lonely segregated aerie there lived a kid named Jan. Word was that this boy, nicknamed “Johnny” by his neighbors, had survived the Warsaw Ghetto! That’s why they Americanized his foreign name and gave him a nice new nickname. At the time, Yale still had a quota limiting Jews, and most of us who had celebrated Bar Mitzvahs hid our origins and had already shortened our immigrant names.
Now, he was a very decent sort, Jan or Johnny, and, in his solitude, he asked the “Negro” next door to wrestle with him in the bleak corridor. And Jim was a friendly fellow, an only child from Springfield, Massachusetts, amiable and sociable. When not wrestling, he liked to wind his way down the steel steps to pop in on my fancier quarters.
I had a functioning fireplace and a French window seat overlooking Harkness Tower and the elms on the courtyard all through that gorgeous autumn of 1951. I had prep school roommates with parents who stirred martinis for us on football weekends. (Which I spent at George and Harry’s bars, skipping the games.)
I never did spend much time with Jan, but Jim and I became a team. We both felt that the Eli “gentleman’s C” and conversations by the hearth were the whole point of undergraduate life. Not so with Jan/Johnny.
He rose up the sociological and academic ladder, and on commencement “Tap Day,” he received the magical pat on the shoulder that allowed him to enter the windowless world of the Secret Societies. Which guaranteed a lifetime of success and prosperity, at least according to legend.
Jan Deutsch earned both a Ph.D. and a law degree at Yale, which in those years discouraged alumni from sticking around, hoping they would instead grace the grounds of other institutions. We were a small, Depression-era generation and post-graduate opportunities were there for the asking and the taking, pretty much.
To take this tale into the present, I must say that Bill Clinton in his recent memoir claims that Jan Deutsch was his most influential and brilliant professor at Yale Law School, and the attorney at the Rhode Island School of Design agrees that Deutsch was highly respected and even revered. (Donald Trump, on the other hand, was influenced by Roy Cohn, a much, much less respected figure in the ’50s age of anxiety and repression.)
Deutsch had a serious accident a number of semesters ago, and passed away this year. The entire university is mourning, grieving and honoring him throughout this fall.
And what happened to Jim, his mate on the mat, my companion throughout our years at Yale? He joined the Air Force, and at a reunion knocked on the door of Jan’s office ... but it was already too late for a personal rendezvous.
Jim was my secret friend. I had a series of such hidden alliances throughout my school experiences; I was always afraid of the disapproval of my family in my choice of chums.
To fit in and do the regular and expected thing, that was the big idea, and I was in a sense written off as an eccentric, but what could I do? I went my own way, but life, kismet, destiny, fate drew me right back to all those alleyways I had known so well in my earliest youth. And, in time, I brought back my friends, roommates, associates, to my home and hearth.
When I learned from the alumni magazine that Jan was no more, just a proud memory of the American Dream, I felt that perhaps I could visit him within these words, and recognize that his contribution was not only to those of wealth and influence but also, metaphorically, to the concept so dear to us locally, that those “troubled in conscience” could find “soul liberty” and “netop” – friendship with others.
The next time I travel, I will head for Chicago to pay a visit to my friend Jim and talk about Jan. That’s the whole point of reconnecting with classmates, after all.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.